Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Congolese Thigh Tuba

That's better - stayed in English this time!

Bouncing along a dusty road through the red earth of DRC - suddenly we start to see boys running - their white shirts and brown shorts flapping! A touch of anxiety - why are they running - is there a rebel army faction down the road? A shouted question into the air brings the response that they are racing to see a famous "N'kala" in the next village...

We race there too - quicker in our ancient Land Cruiser. We hear before we see - the sound we had heard described to us as "threem, threem, threem, threem...". At the centre of a knot of men and boys the source of this strange sound - the Congolese Thigh Tuba ( made by two men.

One man (the human instrument) sits with his buttocks on his heels, his knees bent and is able to form a cavity between his legs, buttocks etc. that forms the Thigh Tuba. The second man (the player) presses his head down between the thighs of the 'instrument' and blows - using the flesh of the thighs to form a pair of vibrating surfaces. The air is forced into the cavity and expelled under control from behind. The key trick is the coordination of player and instrument - the player uses his hands to squeeze the legs of the 'instrument' so that a continuous flow of air is achieved even while he is taking rapid breaths to keep up the sound.

The result is an exciting continuous sound - the chracteristic "threem, threem, threem..." that ethnomusicologists had heard of but never seen before. Analysis shows that the fundamental is about 280 Hz (near lower B#) with of course many harmonics from the rippling thighs.

Photos were not permitted due to the activity being considered almost taboo for foreigners or women to witness.

What a day in the DRC!